Madeline Kahn Blazing Saddles
Credit: Warner Bros.

Let’s look back at Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles as the comedy icon celebrates his 98th birthday this month. The film, released 50 years ago this year, is widely considered one of the funniest movies of all time.

But it wasn’t easy to make.

A 1974 Western satire about a Black sheriff named Black Bart (Cleavon Little) appointed to save a town with the help of the drunken gunslinger the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), the film ridicules Western tropes and racial bigotry — while firing off jokes and pushing the limits of what was acceptable to 1970s movie fans.

Brooks directed, co-wrote and starred in four roles, and the film came out of nowhere to earn three Academy Awards, become one of the biggest box-office hits of the 1970s, and land high on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs list of the greatest movie comedies.

Here are 11 behind-the-scenes stories from Blazing Saddles.

Blazing Saddles Owes a Debt to Malcolm X

Malcolm X. Library of Congress.

The idea for Blazing Saddles originated with Andrew Bergman, who was only in his twenties. He named his character after Malcolm X, who later took the name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.

“I wrote a first draft called Tex-X,” he told Creative Screenwriting in 2016. “Alan Arkin was hired to direct and James Earl Jones was going to play the sheriff. That fell apart as things often do.

“Then I got a call saying, ‘What do you think about Mel Brooks?’ I was 26-years-old and I said, ‘I love Mel Brooks.’ … We spoke and Mel told me that he loved the idea and wanted to use it as a launching point to do a Western. I thought, “Let’s do it. Let’s cook.”

Brooks told Playboy in 1975: “What grabbed me were the possibilities of a modern black man arriving in the traditional West. … We called in Norman Steinberg and Alan Uger, a Jewish comedy team, and Richard Pryor, a black person of outré imagination. Then we turned on the tape recorder and started bulls—-ing. Pryor wrote the Jewish jokes, the Jews wrote the black jokes. Nine months later, we had a finished script.”

The Blazing Saddles Writers ‘Were Either Untested or on the Skids’

Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles

When it was released in 1974, Blazing Saddles became a huge hit that opened the door to other rapid-fire, irreverent comedies like Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and later Airplane, Top Secret and The Naked Gun.

But when Brooks and his co-writers first assembled, none were in demand.

In the 2014 biography Becoming Richard Pryor, by Scott Saul, Saul writes: “Steinberg was a fledging film writer with no film credits; Bergman, a history PhD who had just failed to land an academic job. Brooks felt himself washed up after the disappointments of The Producers and The Twelve Chairs.”

Brooks wrote in his 2020 memoir All About Me!: “The Producers and The Twelve Chairs together didn’t make me enough money to buy a new car.”

Richard Pryor Was Reinventing Himself During the Writing Process

Richard Pryor Live in Concert. Special Event Entertainment

Pryor, meanwhile, was in the midst of a career rediscovery. He was taking large amounts of cocaine after abandoning a middle-of-the-road act often compared to Bill Cosby’s in favor of new, blunt, sometimes surreal routines that didn’t hide from his roots, and took inspiration from the Black Panthers and far-left figures in Berkeley, where he had recently lived.

Blazing Saddles Was Supposed to Be ‘An Esoteric Little Picture’

Gene Wilder (left) and Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles. Warner Bros.

The writers decided to write what they really wanted to write, without worrying about the mainstream, Brooks told Playboy:

“It was designed as an esoteric little picture. We wrote it for two weirdos in the balcony. For radicals, film nuts, guys who draw on the washroom wall—my kind of people.”

Richard Pryor Had Some Demands

The 2014 biography Becoming Richard Pryor, by Scott Saul, details Richard Pryor’s demands when he traveled from Los Angeles to New York to join Mel Brooks and his team on Blazing Saddles: train fare “and a bottle of brandy waiting for him in the writers’ room.”

When Pryor arrived at the Warner Bros. building at 666 Fifth Avenue, Saul writes, “he settled into his chair in the sixth floor executive conference room. Brooks started to explain how the film was shifting from its original conception. While he listened, Richard pulled out a little locket, opened it, tipped out some coke, and snorted it without missing a beat.”

He offered some to Brooks, who quipped, “Never before lunch.”

Richard Pryor ‘Blessed’ the N-Word, According to Mel Brooks

Black Bart (Cleavon Little) takes himself hostage in Blazing Saddles.

Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor details how crucial the standup comedian and budding movie star was to the writing of Blazing Saddles. The film has five credited screenwriters, including Brooks and Pryor, and one of the writers, Andrew Bergman, is quoted saying in the book:

“If you have three Jews in a room, you’re going to be very skittish about writing jokes about a Black man — what’s permissible, what isn’t permissible… Richie gave us license, which was an enormous gift.

Brooks added: “I said, ‘I can’t say the N-word. I need him — he has to bless it. I need a Black guy to bless that word.”

Brooks said on the 40th anniversary Blu-ray release of the film in 2014: “When I thought it was getting to be too much, Richard said, ‘No, we are writing a story of racial prejudice. That’s the word, the only word. It’s profound, it’s real, and the more we use it from the rednecks, the more the victory of the black sheriff will resonate.'”

But Pryor Didn’t Just Write About Race

Monga (Alex Karras). Warner Bros.

In Becoming Richard Pryor, Saul quotes Brooks saying Pryor was especially interested in the Mongo character played by Alex Karras.

“He came up with crazy stuff like, ‘Mongo only pawn in game of life,” Brooks said.

Madeline Kahn Objected to Showing Her Legs in Her Audition for the Role of Lili Von Shtup

Madeline Kahn and Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles. Warner Bros.

Brooks said in the Blu-ray that when he asked Madline Kahn to see her legs, she replied, “So it’s that kind of an audition?”

He added: “I explained that I was a happily married man and that I needed someone who could straddle a chair with her legs like Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again. So she lifted her skirt and said, ‘No touching.’ ”

She got the part.

Richard Pryor Was Denied the Black Bart Role Because of Cocaine

Mel Brooks explained 20 years after the film’s release that Warner Bros. refused to give Pryor the role of Black Bart — which Pryor had written for himself — because “he was a known sniffer,” according to Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor.

Bergman elaborates in the book: “Warner Bros. wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole because his reputation was so dubious in terms of reliability.”

Saul notes that Pryor had recently experienced what the author calls a “coke-fueled crackup” on the set of Michael Campus’ crime drama The Mack, and it is likely that studio executives had gotten word of it.

The role went to Cleavon Little (above right, with Gene Wilder), who was great. And three years later, Pryor would pair with Little’s on-screen partner, Gene Wilder, in Silver Streak, the first of Pryor and Wilder’s four on-screen film pairings.

A Warner Bros. Executive Ordered the Removal of the N-Word and Flatulence Sound Effects

Blazing Saddles. Warner Bros.

Brooks also said in the Blu-ray edition that, following a sneak preview, Warner Bros. chairman Ted Ashley called for several cuts, including of the racial slur, and the flatulence noises.

“When he left, I crumpled up all of my notes and threw the wad into a wastebasket . . . I didn’t cut a sentence or a word or even an expression on anybody’s face,” Brooks said.

Blazing Saddles Almost Wasn’t Released

A very meta moment in Blazing Saddles. Warner Bros.

“When we screened it for executives, there were few laughs,” Brooks said in the Blu-ray. He added that Warner Bros. executives opined, “It’s simply too vulgar for the American people. Let’s dump it and take a loss.”

But Brooks said that studio president John Calley decided to open it in three cities — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — as a trial, and “it became the studio’s top moneymaker that summer.”

Mel Brooks Considers Blazing Saddles the Funniest Movie Ever Made

The American Film Institute ranks Blazing Saddles as the sixth-funniest movie of all time, but Mel Brooks disagrees: “I love Some Like It Hot, but we have the funniest movie ever made,” Brooks told Vanity Fair in 2016.

The five films that landed ahead of Blazing Saddles on AFI’s list were, from first to fifth, Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, Dr. Strangelove, Annie Hall, and Duck Soup.


If you liked this, you might also like our behind the scenes look at Young Frankenstein, the Mel Brooks monster-movie satire released just a few months after Blazing Saddles. And you might also like this behind the scenes look at Kentucky Fried Movie.

Main image: Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles.

Editor’s Note: Corrects headline and lead.